CHAPEL HILL--- North Carolina came out on a mission in the first half of Saturday afternoon's non-conference tilt against UNLV as it built a comfortable early cushion, only to watch it completely wither away early in the second half against the twentieth-ranked Runnin' Rebels.
If UNC needed a challenge heading into the start of Atlantic Coast Conference play next weekend they certainly got it, as UNLV battled them nip and tuck all the way down to the closing minutes.
But in the end the Tar Heels prevailed, finishing the game shooting 50.9 percent from the field in a huge 79-73 triumph that could turn out to be a real feather in UNC's cap come NCAA Tournament time.
"Needless to say we feel very good. It was fun to have some excitement in that locker room (after the game), and we haven't been able to have that this year," said UNC head coach Roy Williams immediately afterwards. "And that's what you coach for. Those are the kind of moments that I coach for, so I can see kids enjoying themselves and feeling some satisfaction of doing some things that are fairly difficult to do."
"They (UNLV) beat us up last year," added senior Dexter Strickland, who led the Tar Heels with 16 points. "We felt like we had a great chance to reverse that and I just think that we came out with energy and ready to play. We did what Coach wanted."
"Coach was hyped up about the game and so were we," Strickland added.
The first half was especially kind to North Carolina (10-3), as the Tar Heels came out fired up and played with an intensity on both ends that hasn't arguably been seen all season so far.
In a rare example of the Tar Heels being an underdog at home to a non-conference opponent, UNC led by as much as 15 in the first half over the favored 'Runnin Rebels, holding UNLV (11-2) to just 37.9 percent shooting while making 53.1 percent of its own shots over the opening 20 minutes.
It may have been the most solid half of ball all season for the Tar Heels, as eight different players scored and five UNC players had five or more points while picking up seven steals on defense and forcing 11 first half UNLV turnovers.
"We played the best defense we've played all year long in the first half today. We were really good defensively in the first half," said Williams.
"We played with a sense of urgency on the defensive end," added P.J. Hairston. "We were attacking them on the defensive end, making them turn over the ball. We were doing the little things as far as taking charges, getting to the loose balls, scrapping, boxing out, and doing everything it took to win."
For a bit it looked like UNC might blow out its ranked opposition, but a pair of back-to-back three-pointers by the Runnin' Rebels as the first half clock wound down gave them some momentum going into halftime as they cut Carolina's lead at the intermission to 39-30.
"Their last two possessions (of the first half for UNLV) were two threes. One we shouldn't have given them an opportunity when Marcus (Paige) tried to throw a length-of-the-court pass. The ball was given back to them and they make another three," said Williams.
Carolina's early-game surge was completely reversed in the first few minutes of the second half, as it was UNLV who came out the more determined and focused team, building on the momentum from those final shots of the first half to continue chipping into the UNC lead.
The Runnin' Rebels---aided by some missed shots and sluggish early second half defense by UNC---embarked on a fast 19-9 run, climaxed by a three-pointer by guard Katin Reinhardt, to take a brief 49-48 lead approximately six minutes into the final period.
"Vegas's team is really good," said Williams. "They came out and we missed some easy ones in my opinion, and all of a sudden they take a lead."
The teams traded the lead a couple of times and the score stayed within a few points down the stretch as the Heels and Rebels exchanged buckets.
But UNC got huge lifts down the stretch from several players, including James Michael McAdoo, who had a rough first half but made six straight points during one stretch to help Carolina regain the lead.
"James Michael was struggling like crazy all day long. It looked like he was out of synch and everything, (but then) scored six straight points for us and we took the lead back," said Williams.
McAdoo finished with 13 points and a team-high nine rebounds for UNC, adding three assists.
P.J. Hairston, starting in place of the concussed Reggie Bullock, also did some nice things, scoring 15 points, burying two huge three-pointers, and playing brilliant defensively at times, including drawing charges and picking up four steals.
Freshman Brice Johnson also gave the Tar Heels a big lift off the bench, scoring six points in a matter of minutes during one sequence in the first half, and ending with 12 points on six-of-eight shooting along with three steals in just 15 minutes of work.
McAdoo, Hairston, and Johnson were all in double figures for UNC, as well as Strickland's team-leading 16 points and Marcus Paige, who sank six of eight free throws on his way to 12 points.
The combined efforts of those players were vital in holding off the Rebels, who were still within a couple of possessions all the way down to the game's last minute.
"It was a sort of survival thing at the end," said Williams. "In the second half I was really proud of our toughness. You haven't heard me say that yet this year."
"I think we came out ready to play (with) a lot of energy," added Strickland. "We knew we were going to have to step it up with the loss of Reggie. I think everyone did a good job."
UNC now gets a week off from game action as it prepares to return to classes for the spring semester and the start of ACC regular season play next Sunday evening in Charlottesville's John Paul Jones Arena against an improving Virginia squad.
In hindsight, a hard-fought win like this was just what the Doctor ordered for the Tar Heels as they prepare for league play.
"The next couple of games are conference games, so I just look at it as a new season," said Strickland. "It's our opportunity to get better and just show people that we are a much better team than what we have been playing."